Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Dána-Ain Davis

Committee Members

Setha Low

Karen Strassler

Aimee Meredith Cox

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology | Transportation | Urban Studies


Race, Youth, Performance, Urban Anthropology, Public Transportation


Dancing in the Heart of the Empire is an urban ethnography of public transit space in New York City. The work is based on five years of research on the trains of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) subway system. This work primarily focuses on Black and brown youth dancers who perform on the subways. Combining participant observation, archival research, digital social media research, and interviews, the dissertation identifies dancing as a form of resistance to the racialized structure of the train space and New York City. Public transportation is the heartbeat of the city. It is a contested site of resistance, and as infrastructure crucial to the economic viability of the New York City

This dissertation is an ethnography of public transit space. In Chapter 1, I present Showtime dancing describing the common features of the practice. I use fieldnotes and interviews to construct a narrative of Showtime as an act of resistance that occurs in public transit space. In Chapter 2, I portrayed a particular history of New York City’s public transit space both as a space in which racism was historically and is contemporarily experienced and outlining how public transit space is used. In Chapter 3, I described prohibited practices-vending and fare evading- as forms of individual and collective resistance to Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) policies. In Chapter 4, I analyzed Police Strategy No. 5 “Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York” and the MTA Courtesy Counts campaign. The point is to demonstrate how public transit space is controlled through policy and advertising and also to show that Showtime dancers subvert that control. I turned to the Schomburg’s archive of Black dance in Chapter 5 using the archive to construct Showtime as a contemporary expression of Black cultural practice within a long history of Black public dance in the U.S. In Chapter 6, I turned to YouTube videos of Showtime dancing and analyze the comment sections. In the narratives produced in these public digital forums, I discern the dimensions of racial and gendered tropes of dancers that are reified and disseminated online.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Sunday, February 01, 2026

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